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How Status Might Be Universal -- The Philosophy of Symbolism In Human Interaction

Updated: Apr 11


A young man with a gas mask.

(September 2023 note: I am no longer handicapped. I explained why in this article).



I once travelled to a distant city to acquire a certain breathing machine, designed to combat the impacts of sleep apnea on my physical and cognitive health. This device, with its strange mask attached, is what allows me to think clearly, alongside medication. Putting it on and taking it off presents a minor challenge, one that might as well be a part of my life due to the new status it has given me.


Gazing into the mirror with this peculiar mask strapped to my face, a realization surfaced. This wasn't mere plastic and tubing; it was a symbol of what I become. Not a symbol of prestige, mind you, but of a new standing within of society. It's a symbol that declares: "Here stands a man who requires assistance against a condition many people don't have."


Many people might as well will never require it, and won't understand the negative impact of smoke and pollution on lungs such as mine. It was a good idea of leave the metropolis, for my unique status is unseen by the vast population. This proves that a status can exist even if no one recognizes it, as seen (or unseen) with my silent asthma.



The Masks We All Wear and Judge


What if we all have statuses? Not titles bestowed by royalty, but a product of recognition and interaction, woven by our experiences with the world around us. The clothes we wear, the work we do, even the hobbies we enjoy -- these aren't just personal choices, but also signs of our place in various circles, from family to humanity at large. This status, meant to place us in certain positions, reflects our perceived value and position in the eyes of others.


As we further operate in this world, our statuses may change or be only reinforced. However, you cannot be pure of any status, which means all humans have at least one. Statuses, along with their varied importance, can practically be nothing more than tools, designed to influence the world around us.


But here's the twist: this status isn't ours to control entirely. We can influence it through our actions and choices, but it ultimately hinges on external perception. Perception is a choice, but not always ours to make, especially when it isn't our own.


As such, a king in one land might be a commoner in another, and a merchant might be disrespected in ancient China but not in today's world of consumerist culture.


Think of it as a reflection in a distorted mirror - the image shifts depending on the angle. Cultural context and personal tastes further cloud our objective judgement. Universality lies in the fact that everyone has a status, but its meaning is constantly shaped by subjectivity and intersubjectivity.


The concept of an "alpha" aggressively dominating everyone is as unrealistic as it is overused. True leadership isn't a forced crown; it arises from the willingness of others to follow. Someone with undeniable charisma or intelligence may project a powerful image, but they can't dictate how others perceive them and their status. The "alpha" label, along with its "beta" counterpart, crumbles under the weight of this reality. In fact, many such classifications relying on the alphabet lack a universal definition, adding to the confusion.


After all, much of our status depends on external perception, and not only on internal qualities. Much of our "alpha-ness" or "beta-ness" depends on specific contexts more than we may think. It's just like the merchant's example I just gave.


Fiction often uses visuals to shortcut this complex attribution of status. The villain with the eyepatch and the menacing scar – instant recognition, right? These are status symbols pretending to be just stereotypes. My breathing mask, for instance, might conjure images of illness, or villany as well.


But just like Moshe Dayan's eyepatch, a symbol of his military experience, it's merely a representation of a greater ideal or concept, either imaginary or one that aligns with reality. Again with my case, my mask a testament to overcoming fatigue. And yet, judging solely by externals can be a grave mistake. People for example might see photos of me in my mask online and think I'm in the hospital, while in reality I'm in my home.


The cliché holds true: inner qualities matter. And the whole point of these status symbols is to reflect them. But here's the thing – our inner selves often leave faint external footprints. These "masks" we wear, both literal and figurative, offer glimpses into our experiences and journeys. However, a reflection's impression is to be doubted or else we might be deceived by our own understanding.


While these representations may be imperfect, they form the basis of our first impressions.



The Powers and Pitfalls of Status


We navigate life while gaining and discarding layers upon layers of perceived statuses. The clothes we wear, the jobs we hold, even our hobbies – all broadcast a message to the world, shaping how we're seen within our social circles. This status isn't a fixed label, but a dynamic interplay between our self-expression and external perception. This dynamic isn't just about interaction but also about conflict and power.


So, let's not underestimate the importance of perceived status. Our attire can influence job opportunities and even romantic encounters. This influence, as we've seen, is a product of both the sender and receiver. It's a subtle, often unconscious collaboration between presence and impression.


Understanding our various standings within society can be a powerful tool for self-discovery. Consider the external impressions you make. What do they reveal about you, even if some of it is misidentified?


Try looking in the mirror, not just with your own eyes, but through the eyes of others – from strangers to loved ones. It can be a humbling and enlightening experience. Perhaps, like me, you'll gain a newfound appreciation for the power, and the perils, of external perception.


Try to understand how others perceive you, and you can influence them better, according to your own intention. I'm not necessarily talking about manipulation, but rather about making them work with you, and not against you. Failure to do this can lead to their voluntary disconnection from your life, making the power you used with them, misused.


Conclusion


Ultimately, we are all participants in this grand performance, constantly sending and receiving signals that shape how we navigate the world. By acknowledging the power and limitations of status, both internal and external, we can move through life with a greater sense of self-awareness and understanding.

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Tomasio A. Rubinshtein, Philosocom's Founder & Writer

I am a philosopher from Israel, author of several books in 2 languages, and Quora's Top Writer of the year 2018. I'm also a semi-hermit who has decided to dedicate his life to writing and sharing my articles across the globe. Several podcasts on me, as well as a radio interview, have been made since my career as a writer. More information about me can be found here.

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